Osama bin Laden has once again managed to occupy the stage and to insist on his relevance to the story of September 11, 2001. In his most recent video message, released by Reuters a few days before the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, bin Laden voiced some typically absurd statements, calling on Americans to embrace Islam and so forth.
What is really worth noting in bin Laden’s message, however, is not the message itself, but the underlying factors that can be deduced from it. First, bin Laden wished to convey that he is alive and well and thus the US military efforts have failed miserably.
Second, his reappearance – a first since October 2004 – will be analyzed endlessly by hundreds of “experts” who will inundate widespread audiences with every possible interpretation – the fact that he looked healthy, that he dyed his beard, that he dressed in Arab attire as opposed to a military fatigue and a Kalashnikov by his side, that he read from a paper and so on.
Conspiracy theorists are already up in arms, some questioning whether the character in the video is bin Laden at all, and others wondering why the tape was promoted by a US terrorist watch group – SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) Intelligence Group – even before its release by Reuters, and why it didn’t make it directly to the various extremist websites first, as is usually the case.
The news and the Internet are already rife with stories that are connected with bin Laden’s re-emergence. A prominent Muslim scholar told Agence France-Press that the dyed beard is a “sign of war” according to the Salafi Islamic school to which bin Laden belongs. Go figure.
Others, who wish to highlight the fact that US security efforts have managed to prevent further attacks on US soil, would rather emphasize factors such as bin Laden not having made any direct threats (a supposed sign of weakness).
Bin Laden has indeed succeeded in diverting attention from the legacy and meaning of September 11 by reducing it to a mere fight between a disgruntled man – whose whereabouts since the Tora Bora Mountains battle in Afghanistan remains uncertain – and a president who dragged his country into a costly, unjustified and unpopular war.
The reality, however, is starkly different from this caricature reductionism, which the experts on “Islamic terrorism” fail to explain. For those who have shaped their careers on deciphering and decoding bin Laden, worrying about the bigger picture would hardly be self-serving.
But indeed there is a bigger picture, one that bin Laden’s message, and the touting of the importance of that message, are unfortunately undermining. While there are lessons that must be gleaned from six years of tragic war, terror and wanton killing and destruction, these lessons hardly include the need for a wholesale conversion of Americans to Islam (one need not pose as an Islamic scholar to claim that such a call is un-Islamic).
For bin Laden somehow to represent existing opposition to President George W Bush’s policy would indeed be very unfortunate and would actually detract from these important lessons.
First, although they repeatedly voice grievances similar to those held by millions of Muslims (and others) around the world, bin Laden and al-Qaeda do not speak for or represent mainstream Muslims. Mainstream Islam has historically been grounded on tolerance and moderation, qualities that bin Laden and his fanatics hardly represent.
Second, extremism in the Muslim world may be on the rise, but this doesn’t pertain to bin Laden and his scarce messages. The obvious fact is that extremism (Muslim or any other) is intrinsically related to areas of conflict and never happens in a vacuum or under stable socioeconomic realities.
A study of suicide bombings and foreign occupations, oppression and radical interpretation of religious (or any ideological) texts, massacres, wanton killings and calls for revenge will show that each of these factors is greatly related to the other.
Third, the war on Iraq was a pre-calculated move that dates to 2002, when US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and his neo-conservative ilk began pushing for forceful and hostile foreign policy. September 11 merely provided the opportunity to justify such a war, even though those terrorists had nothing to do with Iraq.
Fourth, the combination of fear, public panic and war continue to undermine US democracy. Under the guise of an ill-defined “war on terror”, Americans have paid an irreversible price – more Americans have died in Iraq than did in the September 11 attacks; the numbers of Americans wounded in Iraq top 20,000; Americans are spied on; people with integrity are losing their jobs for taking a moral stance and opposing the Bush administration; respected intellectuals are questioned at airports and community groups of conscientious citizens are monitored as security threats.
Fifth, it is America’s war on Iraq, underreported killing fields in Afghanistan and blind support and financing of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine that largely fuel terrorism and extremism and which are costing the US its so-called battle for “hearts and minds”.
The obvious truth is that such a battle can never be won when a million Iraqis are killed and 4 million are made homeless in their own country. No “hearts and minds” can be captured when Palestinians are killed in Israel’s “routine” daily missions in Gaza and the West Bank, or when poor Afghan peasants are blown to bits in random “searches” for bin Laden.
Indeed, it is in the Bush administration’s interest for bin Laden to disseminate his messages at a time when some important and overdue questions ought to be asked. It isn’t bin Laden and his dyed beard that should be flashing on our screens on this tragic day, but the disgraced faces of those who exploited the tragedy of a stricken nation to inflict tragedies on others.
September 11 should be a day on which we remember those who died in New York, near Washington and in Pennsylvania, and also in Kabul, Baghdad and Gaza, so that we can work together at bringing all the culprits to account.
Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in numerous newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). Read more about Baroud at his website ramzybaroud.net.
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